Should biannual flight reviews be yearly?
By Shane Patrick
Special to the Glacier City Gazette
Alaskans have stored away the skis and skates and we’re getting out the kayaks and mountain bikes. Many of our friends and neighbors take out airplanes. Alaska has more pilots per capita than any state in the union. We also lead the league in crashes. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, Alaska had 1,188 accidents in the first decade of this millennium, compared with an average of 351 accidents in each of the 50 states.
Many reasons are cited for the high number of crashes in the 49th State. We have more than our share of mountain ranges, severe weather and a broad definition of an airstrip. We also have a high number of seasonal pilots.
The first time you slip into the cockpit of your kayak each spring feels a bit awkward even if you’ve paddled thousands of miles. A few paddle or bracing strokes and you are comfortable again because the body remembers the right positions and movements for the particular activity.
Climbing into the cockpit of an aircraft after not flying all winter is a similar experience. The difference between the two cockpits is that the consequences of a miscue while you’re getting the feel of the aircraft are much higher because you leave the ground and flying skills are much more mental than physical. Muscle memory isn’t enough.
The Federal Aviation Administration requires pilots to undergo a flight review with a certified instructor every twenty-four months. It’s a better idea to do it each year. Measurable skill deterioration has been documented in as little as three months in professionals as varied as paramedics and naval aviators. Alaskans are no different. If you don’t fly all winter, you will not be as sharp as you were when you put the plane in the hangar last fall.
Physical skills fade more slowly and return more quickly than mental skills. Flying is like riding a bicycle; it will come back to you because of muscle memory. But you don’t need to get clearance from a controller, perform a weight and balance, or compute fuel burn to ride a bike.
Mental skills can be divided into two categories; open-loop tasks like problem solving and closed-loop tasks like memorization. Flying over a gravel strip and deciding whether you’ll have enough room to get airborne again after you’ve caught your limit of sockeyes is an open-looped task. Those kinds of skills stay with us much longer than closed-loop tasks.
Flying is full of mnemonic devices, checklists and other tricks to help pilots remember the myriad closed-loop tasks required to safely complete a flight. And still we forget them if we don’t practice. Taking a flight lesson is a great way to safely practice your aviation skills and knock off a winter’s worth of dust. Schedule a two-hour ground lesson and an hour of flying.
A good instructor will inform you of any pertinent changes in the regulations and make sure you remember the important rules and how to look up the rest of them. Next, he or she might quiz you on your map knowledge. You may be able to fly from Lake Hood to Lake Illiamna with your eyes closed, but that doesn’t mean you remember all the symbols on the charts or the information inside Supplement Alaska. It’s our version of the Airport/Facility Directory.
Now it’s time to review performance charts. Flight planning is a wonderful way to review what you can do with your aircraft and how much fuel and time you’ll need.
A good instructor will be able to find the holes in your memory just by talking a bit about the kind of flying you normally do. But the instructor works for you, so take advantage of his or her knowledge. Review whatever subjects you feel will benefit you and your passengers the most. Talk about weather recognition and forecasting. Compare websites and make sure you know what resources are available where you fly.
Once you’ve boned up on the bookwork, grab your flashlight and do a thorough pre-flight inspection. A great method it is to have the instructor hold the checklist while you do the inspection. The instructor can observe you while you make sure the things that should be tight are tight and the loose things are loose. Your instructor should quiz you as to the significance of each step and provide additional things to think about. A thorough preflight gives you a better chance of finding problems on the ground when issues aren’t really a problem.
Here’s a side note on pre-flight inspections. Turn off your cell phone or if you use an app for your checklist. Put the phone in airplane mode. A preflight inspection is no time to be distracted. If you forget to turn off your phone and you get disturbed, start over with the inspection after you finish the call. That will ensure that you completed all of the steps.
Okay, now it’s time to fly. Grab your prestart checklist and read through it a time or two before you begin. Stick your head out the door and yell, “Clear.” Laugh politely when your instructor says, “Actually it looks partly cloudy to me.” Let your instructor do the radio work while you concentrate on getting comfortable again with the aircraft. Think about how lucky you are that you are flying today.
As you gain confidence, ask your instructor to put you through the paces with stalls, simulated engine failures, and emergency procedures.
After the post-flight debrief, congratulate yourself for making the decision to spend some time and money honing valuable skills that may save your life. You strengthened our aviation community and put your loved ones at ease. And I bet you learned a thing or two.